Presentation. Texture. Overall homogeneous. These are some of the immediate hallmarks of truly high-end cooking. Before the dish is even tasted, these factors are already in play. In the new German documentary "El Bulli: Cooking in Progress", renowned Spanish chef Ferran Adrià espouses these values to the nth degree. And as the proprietor of El Bulli (also known as "elBulli"), one of the world's greatest, high-end "avant garde restaurants" (his words), charging around $360 per meal, it had better be. On the other hand, seeing how dining at El Bulli (a prestigious and influential Michelin 3-star operation located on the ocean tip of Spain) is a three hour experience consisting of at least thirty-five courses of some of the most complex original recipes in the world, that cost is well worth it. All of which begs the question: If the subject of the documentary is so insistent on presentation, texture, and homogeny, then shouldn't the film itself also reflect those same values?
With its sharp video aesthetic, "El Bulli" maintains an improper vibe of stark, cold, flavorlessness. German director Gereon Wetzel maintains a fly-on-the-wall gaze at the process of Adrià, who, with his oddball techniques (vaccumizing ingredients??) and obsessive focus, is far more of a mad scientist in the kitchen than he is a traditional chef. When it comes to this aspect of "El Bulli", the film works well enough. But the fact remains that once the 108 minute doc was over, I was still hungry for basic information about El Bulli, but not hungry for the food. And in a food movie of any kind, there is the expectation to come away hungry for what you've just seen. At best, "El Bulli" leaves me with an apprehensive curiosity to sample the strange dishes put forth. When the animated food movie "Ratatouille" surpasses a live action endeavor in this sense, we can agree that a key ingredient is missing.
That's not to say "El Bulli" fails to fascinate. Adrià dominates the film, with his extreme positions and nearly-impossible-to-please demeanor. (An hour passes in the film before he expresses any kind of satisfaction for the work of his staff, so desperate to please him.) The film plays out in two segments: The second focuses on the perpetually buzzing kitchen of the fully operational El Bulli, revealing the faster the individual must move, the lower he is in the rigid and unforgiving hierarchy.
The first segment of the film chronicles Adrià's eccentric annual practice of shutting the restaurant down for six months out of the year, packing everything up, and taking his key personal to a remote cooking lab in Barcelona to concoct next year's menu. Obsessive weirdness ensues, the kind of obsession that's good for film. However, when the end result is vacuumized flavored oil extract and liquid nitrogen-frozen food baubles, it's hard to want to dig in.
Anyhow, you couldn't if you wanted to. Further research revealed that Ferran Adrià retired last year, resulting in the closure of El Bulli as it we see it in this film. The news stories, easily googled from the world over, all detail plans for the institution to re-open in 2014 not as a restaurant (El Bulli, despite it's pricey nature, has been operating at a loss since 2000), but as a "food creativity center", thus maintaining the spirit of what Adrià was doing with the place as he transformed and super-charged the world of high cuisine on a yearly basis. The end of El Bulli as we know it might've made for a satisfying framework to the non-cinematic info-dump we do get in the film, but alas, as the film depicts the 2008/09 business season, the filmmakers must chalk this up as a painful near-miss, almost comparable to when D.A. Pennebaker opted to stop documenting the efforts of John Delorean just before the cocaine scandal broke.
More of an impersonal procedural than a foodie's passion project, "El Bulli" has all the ingredients it needs to fulfill it's basic recipe, but lacks the presentational finesse necessary to make it a great all around documentary meal. Perhaps I'm just channeling some sort of inner Adrià when I say that "El Bulli" could be sent back to the lab for more character, more flavor, and maybe a dash of film grain. And maybe a round in the vacuumizer, for good measure.
- Jim Tudor
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